I've never been to Russia. I've never been to prison. I've never been to a Russian prison. But as many commentators have noted recently, were I to step foot in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics, I could be arrested and sent to prison for publicly supporting the idea that gay athletes should be free to compete without harassment, punishment, or intimidation — more simply, because I'm "pro-gay." It is against the law to be "pro-gay" in Russia. It's a corollary to the laws against being openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).
In light of that, as well as a litany of human rights abuses against the LGBT community that go far beyond locker room intimidation, many groups are calling for an international boycott of the Olympic Games. At the You Can Play Project, we believe that sports can change the world. And for that reason, we are staunchly against the idea of a boycott.
First and foremost, let's be clear about one thing: The simplest argument against a boycott is that it will not work. Those clinging to the notion that Russia could ever be shamed into changing their ways should recognize who, exactly, they are dealing with. Many who are supporting the idea seem to presume that a boycott would lead to some sort of change; there is absolutely no reason to believe that to be true. I admit, I have no doubt the LGBT community in Russia would be touched and inspired by the gesture. That, I imagine, would fade when no laws were changed, no prisoners were freed, no violence halted.
I also don't believe, however, that Russia would ever take the step of jailing an Olympic athlete from a foreign nation and risking real retribution on an international scale. I firmly believe all LGBT or "pro-gay" Olympic athletes and staff (a group that, I might add, includes many close friends and my father) will be free to participate at Sochi without fear of punishment. If that is not the case, they might as well save the expense of building a hockey rink, because I could safely describe the vast majority of the competing NHL players as "pro-gay." While the atmosphere may be, at best, begrudging tolerance, it would be a tremendous act of international aggression to arrest or harass an Olympic athlete for his or her orientation or beliefs.
The larger argument is that, in an ideal world, the Olympics are supposed to be apolitical. That in ancient times, warring nations would put aside their weapons, their feuds, and their ideological differences in order to celebrate the unifying nature of sport. That the inherent beauty of athletes from around the world putting aside everything except talent and competing on a grand scale for personal and national pride is sacrosanct — and no political issue, no matter how jarring, offensive, or downright inhumane it may be supersedes that ideal. That by stripping away political motives and permitting sport to be sport, lasting memories will arise naturally and purely, leaving an indelible and unforgettable impact on the world in a way no politically driven stunt could.
The stance of a government often swings from election to election, from event to event, from leader to leader. Hard-line stances are often no more than negotiation tools that are abandoned the next time a trade agreement comes up. The 1980 boycott was over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a country the United States currently occupies. When governments "protest" against each other, it is a fleeting, politically expedient decision easily dismissed by propaganda in the opposing country.
The indelible, inerasable images of individual, personal protest and triumph endure eternally, even in the minds of those who disagree with the cause being supported. Billie Jean King played her heart out for women everywhere. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Jesse Owens walked into Berlin and took four gold medals from Hitler's chosen Aryan race. Say "1980 Olympics" to your average American, and they remember the Miracle on Ice, not the failed boycott.
In 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar refused to play in the Olympics as a protest against the treatment of blacks in America. The same year, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on a medal stand, gloved fists in the air, as a protest against the treatment of blacks in America. History remembers the athletes who showed up.
The time has come for us to recognize that politicizing sport only limits sport's real potential to change the world. Russian extremists say that being gay means to be lesser; it is to be weak, to be soft. What will they say when (not if, when) a gay athlete wins a gold medal in their country?
To send the strongest possible message of support to the LGBT community, we must send our athletes — those who are LGBT, those who are LGBT-supportive, those with LGBT family members or friends. Let them show that champions stand strong with their teammates and training partners. Send our openly LGBT and "publicly pro-gay" athletes and let them compete. Let them win. Show the world that there are elite LGBT athletes who are not afraid to be themselves, on and off the playing field. That the majority of the world's finest athletes support their LGBT teammates, coaches, and opponents by treating them as equals in competition.
Maybe some of the individuals who go will feel compelled to take a stand — for themselves, for their family, for their friends, for the Russian people. Maybe some of those individuals will force the world to witness the strength of diversity and the impact one person can make. Maybe they'll remind us of the power of pure, unadulterated sport to compel change. We'll know only if we show up.
Burke founded the You Can Play Project to combat homophobia in sports, spearheading historic changes in both the culture and the rules of professional sports leagues and universities. He can be found on Twitter at @BurkieYCP.